Compromise struck on ballot initiatives

The Colorado Statesman

The last minute compromise announced on Aug. 4 by Gov. John Hickenlooper that resulted in the withdrawal of four controversial ballot initiatives related to oil and gas drilling was contingent upon a series of domino type actions among the key players in Colorado’s fracking battle. By the end of the week, all had been accomplished — to various degrees of satisfaction — and Coloradans will be spared the assaults and counter assaults in what was potentially a $20 million election year all-out war.

Under the agreement, Initiative 121, co-sponsored by state Reps. Frank McNulty, R-Highlands Ranch, and Jerry Sonnenberg, R-Sterling which mandated the withholding of state oil and gas revenue from counties banning drilling, and Initiative 137, requiring a fiscal impact note for all initiatives, were both withdrawn.

Gov. John Hickenlooper announces on Aug. 4 that a compromise has been reached regarding the four controversial ballot initiatives on both sides of the oil and gas drilling issue. Standing next to him is U.S. Rep. Jared Polis, who was at the forefront of two of the anti-fracking measures. Also pictured are, left, Colorado Concern executive director Tamra Ward and CC president Pat Hamill, Longmont Mayor Pro Tem Brian Bagley and Pete Maysmith from Conservation Colorado.
Photo by Jody Hope Strogoff/The Colorado Statesman

In exchange, two initiatives offered by the environmental community and funded mostly by wealthy U.S. Rep. Jared Polis, D-Boulder, were simultaneously withdrawn. One would have required drilling rigs to conform to a 2,000-foot setback from homes; a second would have bolstered local control by including an environmental bill of rights in the state constitution.

The other pivotal part of the compromise entails the formation of a an 18-person task force charged with making recommendations to the legislature to help minimize land use conflicts that can occur when siting oil and gas facilities near homes, schools, businesses and recreational areas.

The group will be chaired by La Plata County Commissioner Gwen Lachelt and XTO Energy President Randy Cleveland. The members will include six residents and local officials, six people from industry, including oil and gas, homebuilders and agriculture, and six “respected Coloradans.”

In announcing its formation at a Capitol press conference attended by stakeholders from various organizations and viewpoints, Hickenlooper professed optimism that the task force will provide “an alternative to ballot initiatives that, if successful, would have regulated the oil and gas industry through the rigidity of constitutional amendments and posed significant threat to Colorado’s economy.”

Instead, the governor said, “This approach will put the matter in the hands of a balanced group of thoughtful community leaders, business representatives and citizens who can advise the legislature and the executive branch on the best path forward.”

Also part of the forged agreement —in what the governor called a “good faith effort” — the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission will dismiss its lawsuit against the city of Longmont, which two years ago passed an ordinance that banned drilling in residential areas. The state had sued the city contending that it had superseded its authority.

“Today’s announcement is a victory for the people of Colorado and the movement to enact sensible fracking regulations,” said Polis at the press conference. “For the first time, citizens will be on equal footing to the oil and gas industry, and able to negotiate directly for regulations that protect property rights, home values, clean water, and air quality. I am pleased that we were able to come together, and today’s agreement is meaningful progress toward sensible fracking regulations.”

Besides the question of fracking as part of the state’s overall energy policy, the issue has been fraught with political implications, especially as it concerns the marquee U.S. Senate and governor’s races in Colorado.

High level Democrats were said to have lobbied Polis privately to withdraw the initiatives, fearing that they could end up working against them at the polls. But Polis held steadfast pretty much until the deadline day for turning petitions into the secretary of state’s office.

According to one of his confidants, Polis was feeling boxed-in and upset over how he was being publicly characterized. On one hand, Polis wanted to placate constituents in his mostly liberal congressional district who favored bans against fracking that were encased in the initiatives. On the other hand, he was cognizant of the political ramifications he could face if, as presumed, the business and oil and gas communities poured $20,000 million to fight the initiatives, enabling a larger Republican turnout and endangering Sen. Mark Udall’s chances for reelection as well as that of the governor. From a national standpoint, control of the U.S. Senate could be wrested from Democrats and turned over to Republicans if Udall lost his grip on his seat.

Further, according to the Wall Street Journal and other articles in the Washington, D.C. media, Polis’ own political career could be adversely affected, too. Polis has made no secret about his desire to become the chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, and that kind of party plum could be more difficult to attain if Polis and his initiatives were deemed responsible for Democratic losses in the state.

In the end, however, Polis capitulated and the compromise was hatched.

Coloradans for Safe and Clean Energy — which oversaw the petition gathering for Initiatives 121 and 137 — hailed the coordinated effort with state Reps. McNulty and Sonnenberg to mutually withdraw the measures — but warned that they’ll be eyeing the issue in the coming months.

“Going forward the grassroots movement that has driven this campaign will remain engaged in next steps and will monitor the formation of the new Blue Ribbon Commission and those appointed to it,” stated Mara Sheldon, spokesperson for the campaign.

Vital for Colorado, a grassroots statewide organization representing over 2,700 small businesses that tout their support of a vibrant energy economy, lauded the agreement.

“[It] brought us the resolution our coalition requested two weeks ago — the withdrawal of ballot initiatives proposed by Congressman Polis and affirmation that the best way forward is to continue honoring the robust stakeholder process,” said Peter Moore, chair of the organization.

“Ballot measures that engrave regulations in the state constitution represent the exact wrong approach,” Moore added.

Other individuals and groups joined in the praise, including Colorado’s two U.S. Senators.
“I have been proud to champion efforts to strike that balance by bringing together Democrats, Republicans, the oil and gas industry, conservationists, and citizen groups,” stated U.S. Sen. Mark Udall, D-Eldorado Springs.

“From the beginning, I have pressed everyone involved to find a balanced way forward and to work toward a collaborative solution. I am proud this engagement yielded results, and I applaud Governor Hickenlooper and Congressman Polis for reaching this compromise. This deal — which averts a divisive and counterproductive ballot fight over one-size-fits-all restrictions — is welcome news and underscores how all of Colorado benefits when we find common ground.”

“Coloradans have proven we can find stronger, more comprehensive, and more effective solutions when everyone comes to the table,” offered U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Denver. “Today’s agreement to create a task force to forge a solution signals a better path and will hopefully allow us to move away from a protracted, costly, and divisive fight at the ballot box.”

Conservation Colorado executive director Pete Maysmith, who appeared with Hickenlooper and others at the press conference, said, “We congratulate Congressman Polis and Governor Hickenlooper for working diligently to bring this complicated issue to a good public policy result. No Coloradan should have to wake up and see a drilling rig over their back fence and worry that their families’ health or quality of life will be adversely impacted.”

“The compromise presented by Governor Hickenlooper is a step forward in open conversation rather than trading blows at the ballot box,” commented Don Shawcroft, president of the Colorado Farm Bureau.“If adopted these ballot initiatives could have significantly hindered farming and ranching for generations, as well as stifle the expansion of jobs and the local economy in Colorado. The anti-oil and gas initiatives would have directly impacted a farmer’s ability to decide how to manage the farm. The creation of this task force ensures that agriculture will have the opportunity to protect the rights of the surface owners and make sure farmers and ranchers don't become collateral damage.”

Kelly Brough, president and CEO of the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce and a co-chair of Coloradans for Responsible Reform, a bipartisan coalition including business, labor, agricultural and civic organizations statewide, said the organization has always preferred dialogue over initiative politics.

“Once again we have proven that Coloradans can put aside their differences and work together to find solutions,” said Brough.

“Our coalition is pleased with the outcome that avoids a divisive and costly election battle. Initiatives 88 and 89 would have damaged Colorado’s economy and created endless litigation. We are relieved they have been dismissed and applaud everyone who worked hard to make that happen,” added Ken Salazar, former Secretary of the Interior and U.S. Senator and also a co-chair of the group.

“This is the result everyone wanted. CFRR wants to acknowledge that we could not have arrived at this point without the resolve and perseverance of Governor John Hickenlooper. He should be commended for his leadership,” said Rick Reiter, CFRR campaign director.

While Hickenlooper and Polis have been publicly credited with crafting a compromise to ensure the withdrawal of the four initiatives, the last minute arrangement was not universally applauded.

Colorado Republican Committee Chairman Ryan Call pounced on what the state party called confusing statements made by Hickenlooper and Polis at the “strange” press conference on Aug. 4. Before knowing whether the four initiatives would be withdrawn the next day, Call chided the Democratic governor in a press release. “While no one knows whether these issues will be on the ballot in November or not, we know for certain that Gov. Hickenlooper supports more regulations on Colorado’s energy industry... The only way we can ensure onerous regulations won’t destroy Colorado’s energy industry is to elect Republicans up and down the ticket,” Call said.

Kelly Maher, executive director of Compass Colorado, a local conservative blog, accused Polis of trying to give political cover to the governor.

“Coloradans realize Hickenlooper is coming up short in the leadership department,” said Maher. “So as soon as Polis realized he would not be able to cross the finish line with his initiatives, he tried to create the perception the Governor actually accomplished something. Yet another commission to talk ad naseaum about maybe potentially doing something in the future that is ‘to be determined’ isn’t actually an outcome or leadership.”

McNulty and Sonnenberg agreed to suspend their campaign and withdraw their initiative on news that Polis was no longer moving forward with his “job-killing initiatives.” Earlier on Aug. 4, they delivered more than 138,000 signatures to the Colorado Secretary of State’s office in support of Initiative 121 that would have restricted state energy development dollars from going to towns and counties that banned energy development.

“In a decisive fight for the future of energy policy in Colorado, Congressman Polis and the fractivists have lost. Colorado and U.S. energy independence are the big winners,” declared the lawmaker from Douglas County.

“For months we’ve asked Polis to pull his initiatives in favor of a more constructive approach,” McNulty continued. “Proposed measure 121 framed the issue and allowed us to do that. It’s now up to Polis to make good on his promise to end his economic brinkmanship, as he promised he would earlier today,” McNulty continued.

Sonnenberg, co-sponsor of the initiative, said that Polis’ “campaign to decimate oil and gas development was a heavy handed fool’s errand from the start. When the Governor called Frank and me late last night, we were both sort of stunned that, after all these months of chest thumping, Polis would just fold up. His polling no doubt showed that his anti-fracking crusade was destined to fail.”

The Sierra Club Rocky Mountain Chapter issued its own statement, stating that it had endorsed Polis’ initiatives to limit fracking prior to the compromise announcement on Monday. “Many Sierra Club members and supporters were directly collecting signatures for initiatives 88 and 89. The Sierra Club continues to stand behind Colorado communities and their right to regulate, zone, or ban fracking altogether. Public and environmental well-being should always come before the interests of the oil and gas industry,” a spokesman said in a statement. “The Sierra Club is currently reviewing the proposed ‘deal,’ and was not involved in negotiating it or asking Polis to drop his initiatives.”

But perhaps the most vociferous criticism of Polis came from the head of the Colorado Community Rights Network in Lafayette. Cliff Willmeng, an organizer in the anti-fracking movement and a member of the organization, said in a statement, “After launching nine ballot initiatives and hosting backroom negotiations with Anadarko Petroleum and Governor Hickenlooper, U.S. Congressman Polis and the PR firm representing him settled on two proposed state amendments to advance onto the 2014 ballot. The Congressman — never having offered tangible support to the numerous communities operating with grassroots budgets and volunteers against the most powerful industry in the world — championed himself an agent of change and an advocate of common people in the face of corporate power. It made more than a few heads turn, but some of us didn’t buy into the shiny new object in Colorado's efforts against oil and gas drilling.

“Two months later,” Willmeng added, “people read that the initiatives were pulled along with the rug from under their feet.

“The initiatives, withdrawn without consultation or warning, created public celebration from the oil and gas industry; Anadarko and Noble stocks surged with the neutralizing of citizen involvement in governmen, Willmeng continued. “Piling onto the shared moment was the judicial negation of Longmont’s democratically driven ban on hydraulic fracking and Fort Collins’ moratorium on the same. After two years of independent organizing and efforts, the true colors of Colorado’s corporate legal privileges and their loyal courts and politicians brought hundreds of thousands of family members and communities into subservience to the likes of Halliburton and Anadarko,” Willmeng said.

“The only silver lining may be that we don’t have to believe the fabrications about our government any longer. The Colorado Community Rights Network, authors of ballot initiative #75, will organize and continue to take the government and corporations to task. 2015 will be a year of preparation for a major campaign to reintroduce the Colorado Community Rights Amendment — the amendment that was most feared by the CEOs and corporate PR firms, the only one led by volunteer grassroots community members, and the only one that fundamentally tipped the balance of corporate power back toward people and communities,” Willmeng averred.

See the August 8 print edition for full photo coverage.
Jody@coloradostatesman.com